Life writing

MITA KAPUR

 

LIFE writing is evocative, calling out to a reader in a way fiction cannot. The parts of the self that find their way into a story are nuggets of gold, leaving one with traces of another personÕs life. The question of how much of the self gets written into the narrative remains fluid and varies from book to book. Sometimes itÕs an entire life that gets fictionalised, like Charles DickensÕ David Copperfield. Bits and pieces of an authorÕs life fitting kaleidoscopically into a larger fictional setting has been a widely used technique by fiction writers, like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

 

Literary boundaries get diffused across genres, ages, people. Some are satisfied with a peek into
a personalityÕs life through fiction, some are deeply, incessantly obsessed with seeking scraps of information about how a particular life was lived. The reasons to reach out to autobiographies and biographies are multiple – a natural curiosity fuelled by inherited knowledge, myth, the desire to read or for work. Autobiographies emerged as a sought-after genre to write around the 1800s. It coincided with the rise in interiority of the self, notions of identity, a penchant to look back and trace a life story not just to know but also to glance at the milieu in which that person was narrating events from.

 

An autobiography has the power to present personal and social history, intensely private and at the same time overtly public. It embodies the memories of that person and an age. Conventional historical and autobiographical narratives reflect complexities of internal and external dilemmas of a personÕs life. An author who embarks on life writing has to have epistemic and literary potential even while experimenting with the scope of the genre. Autobiographies from the field of history complement other forms of representation of the past produced in fiction writing. Such writers engage with the past creatively, asking questions along the way, not only about what happened but also what might have happened. In a sense, the writer is a memory keeper, an eyewitness who also dips into collective memory, popular culture, notions of identity and of the surroundings.

 

 

Delving into life writing narratives which are a part of contemporary history, the reader has the liberty to enter into the world of resistance literature. Omprakash ValmikiÕs autobiographical account Joothan is a stark account of his life as a Bahujan. The book was the first of its kind in modern India, leaving in its wake a consciousness of how muddy and denied his life was. Therein comes a learning, an exposure that leaves the reader shaken, overwhelmed with a desire to impact social change in a society that still practices the systemic ostracization of a particular caste. Joothan casts a deep, hard look at what the nation has made of itself, and of what a person, with as much right to freedom as another individual, was not allowed to be.

 

Viramma: Life of an Untouchable is an example of a collaborative autobiography as a part of resistance literature by Jean-Luc Racine, Josiane Racine, Viramma and John L Varriano. The book was recorded in Tamil first and then translated into French and English later. VirammaÕs story mirrors a social history which is pieced from oral and archival records. Autobiographies are also a deep psychological and socio-cultural interpretation of the subject and her times. The genre started evolving around the 1800s when self-reflection became the way to look at an individual self in context with her environment. It maps the rise of individualism and interpretation.

 

Biographies are an ancient form, and in their earlier formative periods they were largely historical and connected with the passage of civilisations developing, destroying, reinventing the world. As a larger definition of modernisation crept into different parts of the world, the notion of telling life stories became complex, changing the creative narrative to a more flexible and nuanced form. Historical, mythological, political, geographical, religious, socio-ethnic, environmental narratives have been read across decades.

 

 

An author of a biography has the liberty to analyse, unravel mysteries, connect the dots, highlight the significant plot points and mistakes. Critical and literary biographies such as Mehr Afshan FarooqiÕs Ghalib: A Wilderness at My Doorstep are an exhaustive reading of his life as a writer. The authorÕs research of existing manuscripts on Ghalib led to this wonderful exploration of his oeuvre, which helps make better sense of GhalibÕs art, his life and the age he lived in. Farooqi delved into GhalibÕs engagement with the Persian and Urdu languages, along with his life that centred around demystifying human nature.

 

Kipling Sahib India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling by Charles Allen, another critical biography, focuses on KiplingÕs years in India that led to the writing of Jungle Book and Kim. He was considered to be a fascinating storyteller and Allen has done justice to the person inside Kipling, and what made Kipling spin yarns the way he did, the roots of his imagination and how his circumstances in India influenced his writing. Kipling did not really like the years he spent in India and that probably fuelled his creativity.

 

Writers play with memory. When writing fiction, they create memories via characters. While writing autobiographies they lay bare their own (well, hopefully, thereÕs no holding back there) and while writing biographies, the experience becomes immersive with the three-sixty-degree consumption of the subjectÕs life and times. Memoirs are intimate, granular, sinking underneath the skin of the person, unblocked and unplugged.

 

I go back to Kamaladevi ChattopadhyayÕs Inner Recesses Outer Spaces, where she symbolises the individual as a human being, giving a towering stature to the personhood that soars high and tall with dignity. She narrates incidents from her life with a detachment that quietens the narrative but stands deafeningly giant like through her actions, her beliefs, her convictions. It is a joy to read the fulsome rich life lived through the prism of her many loves – the nation and its people, its culture and its various aspects.

 

 

Biographies of kings and queens have fascinated us for various reasons. They sweep us into the historicity of an age and time, mostly decadent and luxurious, but also deeply troubled with political strategies and wars. Ira MukhotyÕs Akbar the Great Mughal: The Definitive Biography is one such jewel, immersed in what the title of the book promises with quiet authority. Akbar as a king, a leader, has been written about for his larger-than-life persona, the pluralism and multi-culturalism that his reign stood for, and the writer does justice to his legacy with her strong narrative skills.

 

Humanising a towering personality like Akbar demands the skill of a storyteller. IraÕs prose makes him come alive. The Last King in India:Wajid Ali Shah by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and The Career and Legend of Vasco Da Gama by Sanjay Subrahmanyam are also enriching reading for those who gravitate towards history.

With social biographies, the line between history, sociology and anthropology merges, and there are some books that stand out not just because of the cartography of related facts but simply because they give an insight into how the subjectÕs ecosystem support or deconstruct the story.The 1982-83 Bombay Textile Strike and the Unmaking of a LabourerÕs City by Hub Van Wersch stands out as a seminal work. It is a comprehensive account of how the textile strike gathered lakhs of mill workers, lasted for a year and a half, and is considered one of the most impactful strikes in any industry the world over. The author had his ear to the ground, basing his writing on intense research, analysing the length and breadth of its path and what it led to in the future for the textile industry at large. The strike changed the face and nature of Bombay as a city.

 

India Moving: A History of Migration by Chinmay Tumbe encapsulates socio-economic history like a detailed satellite viewing of mass migrations of the Indian population around the Indian subcontinent and across the globe. The book is a document of what millions of people went through when they moved voluntarily or involuntarily, how slave trade affected lives, refugee movement, how business communities moved and set up base, mass migration from Bihar and Kerala to the northern and central parts of India. The scale and sensitivity of the book is expansive, well argued and well-wrought.

 

 

Chinmay Tumbe has written, in his inimitable style, another important book, The Age of Pandemics and how They Shaped India and the World – 1817-1920. Social, political and economic biographies inhabit not just a geographical area but also work as an archive of societal constructs, deconstructs of the economy, of culture, the dignity of human lives juxtaposed against natural and manmade disasters. Such books become significant archives and remain relevant across the ages.

 

 

No one does it better than Sunil Amrith in Unruly Waters when youÕre on the lookout for environmental biographies. A wide-ranging history of water, the narrative is a prism of cross-connections between British India and post-Independence India. ItÕs not just a story of a geographical phenomenon but also of a people that get swept along with the course it charts naturally and then, how it gets subjected to the will of people in power. It makes for a refractive, diagnostic layering of many histories, life stories of lakhs of people across generations. If it was fiction, weÕd call it an intergenerational family saga with a sweeping vision intertwined with stories of societies, their struggles, their wins, along with natural evolution. Unfortunately, itÕs all too real.

 

Another environmental biography that has left an indelible mark on the genre is The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra by Arupjyoti Saikia. He spent a few years trying to understand, live with and experience this mighty river that has continually been witness to eons of history since early settlers in the 2nd century AD, culture, while simultaneously giving birth to new movements in socio economic, political, artistic, environ-mental spheres. Saikia spent a lot of time with people who lived on the BrahmaputraÕs banks, studied the literature, religious texts, music, food, tribal folklore to gather the minutest details, to spin a narrative around the Brahmaputra. It is not a simple subject to write about. The river is a geological and ecological wonder, and has played the role of a major protagonist in the meta-narrative of the Indian subcontinent.

 

Corporate biographies are abundant in the West but there are a few that stand out from the Indian publishing turf. Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism by Mircea Raianu spans the course of a 150-year long history. The TataÕs spread their wingspan over textiles, steel, hydroelectric power, automobile, and aviation. It is an expansive book in which Mircea Raianu spins the story around the fortunes of a family run business that was born in a British ruled India but went on to garner the worldÕs attention with its all-conquering growth. The Tatas became symbols of growth, development, modernisation, inextricably intertwining their history with that of the nation.

 

 

Biographies set in the world of aesthetics give us an insight into a fascinating world of craft, vocation and livelihood, of a tangible heritage being perpetuated. Jenny HousegoÕs A Woven Life is a journey through Britain after the Second World War, of a young woman exploring culture and textile, her adventures taking her thousands of miles away from where she grew up, to the East, unveiling to her its many beautiful gifts.

 

JennyÕs story flows between revealing to the reader glimpses of her life and taking on a larger conversation on culture. The book takes us through how her love for textiles grew while working at a museum in London. Her journeys through Asia led to her education and growth. The foundation of the well known Shades of India and Kashmir Loom as successful handloom and textile businesses are an inspiration for young India to embrace its roots. It has multiple narratives embedded in it, making it a work of cultural significance.

 

Balkrishna Doshi looked at built structures as entities that embodied the human spirit that represented elements from the past moving fluidly into the present and staying put for the future. A sense of permanency that had a pulse because it was about the life of communities. His biography, Paths Uncharted, is the scintillating account of IndiaÕs foremost architect. Doshi is respected as a thought leader of design in India because he interpreted the built form socially, culturally and economically, giving it a broad spectrum. He took the landscape, community traditions and natureÕs ways into account while dealing with his subject, understanding that the individual was always placed in the context of their surroundings.

 

One of the most delightful, sparkling books that stand out in my memory is RagaÕn Josh: Stories from a Musical Life by Sheila Dhar. The book has a surround sound effect from the first page, with DharÕs naturally effervescent way of skipping from one story into another. Narrating her closest memories since she was sixteen, she has unwittingly knitted music with food adding a velvety richness to a book on music. Unpretentious, charming yet full bodied with her knowledge of classical music, its magic and its mysteries, she writes of the fluidity of the music scene in contemporary India.

 

In all its forms, life writing is the journey of humans connecting with each other, civilizations exchanging ideas. Anne FrankÕs The Diary of a Young Girl is an unassuming giant of the genre, showing generation after generation that courage doesnÕt need to roar to be heard. Peering into anotherÕs life can open many doors in our own, perhaps thatÕs why we find such relief in their stories.